Politics  •  December 4, 2017

What Is Abuse?

Despite the fact that the talk of “abuse” is all over the town, it is not so well-defined. Because of this ambiguity, for instance, many people are debating over whether the presumption of innocence is relevant for abuse. This question arises because many types of misconduct, especially in a professional environment, are not technically illegal. They cannot be governed by our legal system. Even if they could be, it does not lead to relevant outcomes, causing unnecessary distress and trauma to the victims.

A friend of mine who is a bit of a philosopher proposed a theorem on Facebook. “The ability to talk about abuse is inversely related to the extent the abused depend on the abuser.” I think this is generally true—I can’t think of an exception off the top of my head. But his friends commented that it’s lacking in nuance. So, let’s try to define what abuse is, and then we will discuss how to address it.

What is not explicitly stated in my friend’s theorem, but is implied, is that abuse is a chronic problem, that is, it takes place over time. If it were an isolated incident, we would probably call it “injustice” or “an error in judgment.” Furthermore, if the act were an isolated incident and clearly illegal, we are more likely to call it “crime.”

So, when we use the word “abuse,” we are commonly referring to ethical problems, not legal problems. Bill Clinton could be tried for lying under oath, but not for getting a blowjob. But if a similar incident were to take place in a corporation, an employee can be fired. Each corporation can define what it deems as professional and ethical, and it varies from company to company, and industry to industry. A church, for instance, would have stricter policies than the porn industry. “Abuse” therefore is more subjective and “crime” is more objective.

The same holds true for families. A parent can verbally abuse his children but this is not something our legal system can govern effectively because verbal/psychological abuse is highly subjective. If the abuse manifests physically, like injuries, our legal system can step in. But this is just a practical limitation. It does not mean that psychological abuse is less painful or traumatic than physical abuse.

So, what we have so far is that “abuse” is typically a long-term ethical problem. My friend’s theorem is salient in that there is an element of dependency in an abusive relationship, because it’s a pattern that repeats itself over time, and this, in turn, is because the legality is ambiguous. The abusers often exploit this ambiguity. Whether or not you agree with this definition of “abuse,” this is the type of abuse I would like to discuss here because, I believe, it is the most common and problematic type of abuse.

There is no question that children should be protected from abuse by our legal system, but it is debatable if adults should be. To make my point clear, let me give you an exaggerated example. Suppose a female employee accuses her boss of abuse because he often calls her “a bitch.” The boss then defends himself by saying he means it in a tongue-in-cheek way, that he does not literally think she is a bitch. The HR department does not want to deal with the subjective nature of this conflict, so they issue a company-wide policy that prohibits the use of the word “bitch” under any circumstances. It’s similar to how the word “bomb” is banned at airports.

In Japan, there is no concept of “curse words.” The Japanese understand meaning as being dependent on the context in which the words are used. Depending on how, when, or who, even the word “fuck” can be used appropriately or even lovingly. Prohibition of words not only prevents us from mastering the nuances of language, but also gives more potency to the words. Universal codification is a form of infantilization.

As you could imagine, if this type of codification became widespread, eventually, we will be scared of saying anything. Nobody would take any chances with language and communication. And, imagine if our legal system too began adopting such measures. Thankfully, the First Amendment protects us from such encroachment of freedom.

Furthermore, universal codification of sexual harassment will lead to more insidious forms of sexual harassment where some men will feel safe or even justified to treat women disrespectfully as long as they are not literally violating the code.

What this means is that, as tempting as it might be to rely on a higher authority when we confront abuse, doing so has far-reaching consequences to our liberty. We need to think twice about taking that path.

An interesting question here is why we are tempted to appeal to higher authorities. My friend’s theorem reveals an answer. If a higher authority can intervene, we get to keep the part we want, the part we are dependent on. For instance, say, your boss is abusive but you are afraid to speak up because you don’t want to lose your job or opportunity for promotion. If a higher authority can intervene, you wouldn’t need to risk losing what you want while trying to eliminate what you don’t want.

But appealing to a higher authority has numerous problems, not just the encroachment of our freedom. Often no such authority exists. For instance, many would argue that the US is abusing its power with respect to environmental problems. The Iraq War can be argued as abuse of power also. If you are not an American, what authority do you appeal to? The UN can’t do much if the US wants or don’t want to do something. Does that mean there is no solution to abuse in those cases?

If two kids are fighting at school, a teacher can intervene and figure out who is at fault. If two teachers are fighting, the principal can intervene. At every step, someone more mature steps in to resolve the conflict, but those at the top have nobody to appeal to unless God can answer emails. This means, as we grow older and become more mature, at some point, we need to stop appealing to higher authorities to intervene in our own affairs.

Many people argue that sexual harassment is a problem that the management of each organization should deal with, that the employees shouldn’t have to deal with it. But even if we climb to the top of the corporate ladder, we will still be dealing with all sorts of harassment and abuse. The only difference is that they will be coming from the outside of the company, like our customers, clients, and competitors. Who are we going to appeal to then? The police are not going to intervene unless they break the laws.

Even though there is a lot of emphasis in our culture for “leadership,” when we confront difficult situations like abuse, suddenly we are happy to be followers and relegate the problem to our leaders. We don’t step up; we just remain silent, hoping that true leaders will step up and solve the problem.

If you have your own business, you would know that the world is filled with abusive people. Especially in retail business, you would deal with abusive customers every day. I have my own zero-tolerance policy in business. I don’t work again with a client once I find them abusive no matter how lucrative it is. I’ve even had a situation where I paid back the entire fee and fired the client even though the project was almost complete and I had already spent my money on various expenses.

At one of the jobs I had on Wall Street, the boss we all liked retired, and the management hired a new boss from outside. Within a few weeks, we realized that this guy was an abusive asshole. On the way to work one morning, I realized I had a feeling of dread about going to work which never happens to me. So, I decided at that moment that I should quit. I did not mince my words; I told them that I’m leaving because I did not want to put up with him. The asshole was furious. I didn’t just leave that bank; I had to leave the entire industry because I knew that this man was well-connected. If I had tried to get another job on Wall Street, he probably would have sabotaged my chances. About a year later, the bank fired him when they discovered that he spent $20,000 on one dinner.

You might argue that not everyone can afford to quit their jobs, and that those who can are lucky. But think about the millions of people around the world who can barely support themselves: why do they have children? It makes no rational sense, but once they do have children, they somehow manage it one way or another. That is, if there is a will, there is a way. Save for a tiny percentage of extreme cases, everyone is just making excuses when they talk about their inability to quit. It’s not that they can’t; they don’t want to. They would rather accept the abuse than to take the risk of quitting, thereby accepting the deal silently. There is a lot of “learned helplessness” accepted as the norm in our culture.

We all underestimate our own abilities. We realize this when we are forced into challenging situations. We discover that we are far more capable than we had imagined. If we do not challenge ourselves, we end up in a self-fulfilling prophecy: We don’t quit our jobs because we think we can’t. And, because we never quit, we never give ourselves the chance to prove ourselves wrong.

“Zero tolerance” is not something we should expect our society to manage. Each of us needs to have our own version of zero-tolerance policy because what we perceive as “abuse” is subjective. Our stand against it is a way to announce to the world what we consider “abuse.” Each of our zero-tolerance policy functions like a vote in our political system. As responsible adults, we shouldn’t rely on higher authorities to intervene because a top-down system must always be centralized and therefore universalized. It’s great if we happen to agree with the universalized code of conduct, but what if we don’t? Our liberty would be compromised. We must remember that abuse is subjective.

Reseach has shown that between 30% and 40% of people who are abused as children go on to become abusers themselves. As Jenny Holzer said, “abuse of power comes as no surprise,” because when we are the abusers, we don’t recognize our actions as “abuse.” It is painful to admit that I’ve abused others. It does come as no surprise. Thinking of myself as a victim is much easier than thinking of myself as an abuser.

Focusing our energy on being victims of abuse contributes to this cycle of abuse. If we don’t want to be complicit in it, we need to think of ourselves as a coin with two sides: abuser and abused. It’s too reductive and naive to think of each person as only being an abuser or abused.

If you asked a hundred people if they have been a victim of abuse, how many do you think would raise their hands? I would guess a lot. Most of us have been abused in one way or another. But ask the same hundred people if they have ever abused anyone. How many do you think would raise their hands? Probably none. But abuse requires two parties. If only victims exist, where are all the abusers?

In the vast majority of cases where people were abused by their parents in their childhood, the parents categorically deny the accusations even on their deathbed. No reconciliation or closure is possible because of the denial. So, the problem is not only that abuse happens but also that it is systematically denied. And, because it is denied, it happens again. The best way to prevent abuse is to address our propensity to deny the abusers in us all. Our duty as a parent is to stay open to the idea that we can all abuse others; not outright deny the possibility. What we did not think of as “abuse” can still be traumatic for our children. We parents do not get to unilaterally define what “abuse” is, just as Harvey Weinstein does not get to unilaterally define what “sexual harassment” is.

Imagine a world where everyone had the integrity to admit to being abusive. Much of the abuse in the world will disappear. And, even when it happens, there would be a way to resolve it and move forward, because the abusers will quickly recognize their abusive behavior and apologize before it becomes a big, persistent problem. After all, we all make mistakes.

Abuse comes as no surprise, partly because something we think is harmless or “joke” can have a detrimental effect on others depending on their circumstances, life experiences, and how they interpret the event. The 9-11 attack caused many New Yorkers to have post-traumatic stress disorder, but one of my friends who narrowly escaped the collapsing tower talks about it like it was an exciting event. This is why many of the men who are being accused of sexual harassment now are sounding surprised, saying that the stories they are being told are not how they remember (or don’t remember at all). The emotional impact of an interaction between two people is often asymmetrical. If we don’t want to abuse others, we cannot rely on our own definition of “abuse.”

It is perfectly understandable for children and young people to focus on being the victims if they were abused by their parents, but as they grow older, more mature and more powerful, especially if they have children, they need to gradually shift towards focusing on how they might be abusing others.

The American culture today loves victimhood because being a victim is a source of authority. Many debates about identity politics, for instance, turn into competitions over who the bigger victim is. Victimhood is a state of mind. Physical pains don’t last forever but victimhood can. Ultimately it’s up to you to decide if you want to be a victim or not.

If I had decided to stay at my Wall Street job because I was getting paid well, the relationship would no longer be “abuse” because it would mean that I consented to tolerating it in exchange for the pay. And, if everyone at work consented to such conditions, abuse will continue unnoticed, which makes it hard for anyone to stand up against the abuse. We collectively create such an environment by not acting on our principles. That is, our tolerance of abuse has societal consequences. Our lack of action doesn’t just affect us; it affects everyone.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “Nobody can hurt me without my permission.” What did he mean by it? He was confronting the mother of all abuse; the colonial power of the British Empire. He had no higher authority to appeal to. He was just an average citizen up against the Empire. It was his willingness to sacrifice anything for his principles that made the British Empire powerless in his eyes.

You become powerless in front of your boss only because you give him permission to, only because you are unwilling to sacrifice your job for your principle, because you are psychologically attached to your financial security. If your job is more important than your principle, then that’s a choice you make, and you become a complicit player in that relationship.

If we are abused and if we even witness abuse, we should act on our principles. If everyone walked out of a job because they witnessed a sexual harassment, there would be no need for a legal system to step in. Even if it did step in, it wouldn’t be very effective at addressing such issues anyway. Trials would likely be more traumatic for the victims.

Many powerful men who are now being accused of sexual misconducts had been known for many decades to be predators. Their abusive behaviors were “open secret.” Why? Because they were surrounded by people who valued their careers more than their principles.

I’m not advocating that we quietly and passively leave our jobs. In many cases, we wouldn’t have to quit our jobs to stand up against abuse, although we should be willing and ready to. We can first confront the abusers directly. If that doesn’t work, we can go to the HR. And, if that doesn’t work, it means we are working for an organization that promotes abusive behavior. Imagine how the organization may be treating the people and other businesses outside. Should we be working for such a company? If we are quitting, we should make a point of it. Let everyone know why we are leaving. Gandhi wasn’t just passively beaten; he put up a fight albeit passively. We shouldn’t expect some paternal figure to step in and solve our problems for us. And, if we witness someone being abused, we should also act on principle, be ready to sacrifice our material security and comfort. Inspire others to do the same. Otherwise, we will be complicit in that abuse.

Today’s worshipping of victimhood has us all believe that we are powerless, but we are not. This partly contributes to the powerful people obliviously abusing their power because they too think they are powerless, especially when they look up at the more powerful people above them. For instance, Louis C.K. admitted that he didn’t realize the impact his power had on others. The same state of mind that allows others to have power over you also makes you blind to the power you already have.